In a country whose main male role models seem to be flouncy-haired television “talent”, Shinya Yamanaka is an oddity. The 50-year-old scientist shared the 2012 Nobel prize for medicine for his work reprogramming mature cells into induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. But his career also includes bouts of failure—something rarely forgiven in Japan. He became a folk hero when he won the award.
To add to the surprise, his work has produced a whiff of enterprise in a country whose population and manufacturing industry are both ageing fast. Using iPS-cell patents, business-minded boffins are busy inventing new ways to rebuild retina tissue to prevent blindness among the elderly, for example. The government promises to back such ventures with 110 billion yen ($1.17 billion) of hard cash.
Dr Yamanaka’s success comes just as Japan is reaping the benefits of a transformation in the way it approves, pays for and administers drugs. The aim is to spur innovation and curb rising age-related health costs. The world’s biggest drugmakers are licking their lips.
Shinya Yamanaka of Japan and John B. Gurdon of Britain won the Nobel Medicine Prize on Monday for their groundbreaking work on stem cells, the jury said.
The pair were honoured “for the discovery that mature cells can be reprogrammed to become pluripotent,” it said. The two discovered “that mature, specialised cells can be reprogrammed to become immature cells capable of developing into all tissues of the body,” it said. By reprogramming human cells, “scientists have created new opportunities to study diseases and develop methods for diagnosis and therapy,” the Nobel committee said.
Gurdon is currently at the Gurdon Institute in Cambridge, while Yamanaka is a professor at Kyoto University in Japan. Because of the economic crisis, the Nobel Foundation has slashed the prize sum to eight million Swedish kronor ($1.2 million, 930,000 euros) per award, down from the 10 million kronor awarded since 2001.
Last year, the honour went to Bruce Beutler of the United States, Jules Hoffmann of Luxembourg and Ralph Steinman of Canada, for their groundbreaking work on the immune system.
This year’s laureates will receive their prize at a formal ceremony in Stockholm on December 10, the anniversary of prize founder Alfred Nobel’s death in 1896.
A Japanese scientist who created the equivalent of embryonic stem cells from ordinary skin cells has won one of this year’s Kyoto Prizes and will receive a $550,000 prize. Shinya Yamanaka, 47, developed a way to reprogram skin cells so that they can be developed into all kinds of tissue, such as that of the heart or brain. This has vast potential to speed medical research, creating genetically matched cells for use in damaged parts of the body. He developed the method as an alternative to using embryonic stem cells, an approach that required embryos to be destroyed, raising complicated ethical questions that held back research.